The Historical Importance of Laura Bassi

In a time when it was considered an impressive accomplishment for a woman to have an education, Laura Bassi earned a doctorate and became a university professor1. She worked with unrelenting determination to achieve her goals and be treated as an equal in her field. Bassi, who was born on October 20th 1711, did not try to impress or fit in with any particular group. She managed to raise 12 children in addition to her professional duties2. She is an important historical figure because of her contributions to science, which span across several fields. She is also mportant because she had to work so much harder to achieve these goals, due to the obstacles facing every woman seeking this type of employment in her era.

Bassi was a noted professor of anatomy, an accomplished physicist, a Doctor of philosophy, and a mother of twelve3. Even today, over 200 years after her death, most women would be considered successful with even one of these titles to their name. Bassi had incredible drive and gave her all to each of her responsibilities. She somehow managed to find the time to do charity work helping the poor, and enjoyed writing poetry4.

Bassi’s time was mostly spent teaching, experimenting, and attending meetings of the Bologna Academy of Science. She was genuinely interested in her work and it was important to her to pass her knowledge on to others whom encouraged to become educated. One possible reason for the long list of Bassi’s accomplishments is the excellent start to her education. Even as a child, she displayed an extraordinary aptitude for learning, as she easily mastered languages and became fluent in both French and Latin5. She became a professor at age 21, he result of her hard work with tutors, as well as a powerful memory6. Another possible contributor to Bassi’s drive and subsequent successes was that after accomplishing so much, so young, her standards were set extremely high in every challenge encountered. After much insisting by her family and friends, Laura took part in a public debate to defend her set of theses on philosophy.

On April 17, 1732, she debated with five men who were considered to be the top scholars in Italy at that time7. Bassi took this opportunity to shine. Her successful debating earned her the respect of many and a degree in hilosophy, and this announced her as an equal amongst the much older, more educated men. Although she was officially given the position of professor at the University of Bologna, getting permission to actually teach was much more difficult. Bassi tried everything within her power to convince the Senators to allow her to teach a class regularly, but her requests fell on deaf ears for many years. The all-male Senate wanted her to be solely and honorary member, not active on campus8. She was permitted to give lectures sporadically, but this did not satisfy her desire to teach.

The discouraging response from the Senate did not make Bassi give up, on the contrary, she just kept trying. When she couldn’t teach at school, Bassi took matters into her own hands and in 1749 began teaching lessons from her own home. She taught mathematics first and then settled into more popular classes in physics and anatomy. The physics course became very popular, attracting not only young students but adults as well9. This is important because is demonstrates how well respected Bassi was, as grown men would not normally take a science class from a woman.

Due to the fact that she was teaching these lessons at home, Bassi was able to branch out and teach whatever she wanted, without having to consider university curriculum. She exercised this freedom regularly, and taught Newtonian philosophy, which was still considered modern and wasn’t widely accepted10. Since Bassi had now proven herself as a competent and innovative teacher, the question remained: why was she not teaching regularly at the university? The only answer is she was discriminated against because of her sex. As the number of her supporters grew, including the Pope himself, ore pressure was put on the Senate to give her a proper classroom. Persistence finally paid off for Bassi in 1776, as she was granted a regular teaching position, only two years before her death. She was a professor of experimental physics, and conducted many experiments and observations as the focus of her class11.

Laura Bassi was not interested in marriage when she was young, as she thought it was much more useful to spend her time devoted to her work. Many in the community were surprised when she did marry in 173812. Some people spoke out against her marriage, claiming it would tarnish her professional eputation, and most assumed her career would end as a result. Bassi proved them all wrong. She was successful in both her professional and family life. This is another example of how strong-willed and independent Bassi was, she was completely unconcerned with trying to be conventional. Bassi’s motives for marrying her husband may have related to the fact that many people disapproved of her spending so much time with groups of men in her home13. She was the subject of much gossip and accusations about her relationships with these men. After she married fellow professor nd scientist Giuseppe Verrati the rumours ceased, as he began to accompany her to meetings.

This is not to say that Bassi was careless in her choice of her husband. She said that she decided to marry him because she thought him to be “a person who walks my path in the arts and who, through long experience, I was certain would not impede me from following mine. “14 Most women in this era did not work at all outside the home. For this reason, Bassi’s accomplishments as a scientist and a mother were all the more impressive. Also, her success at work and home was an inspiration o many women who had never even considered the possibilities of leading this “double life”. As a pioneer of working women, Bassi is an ideal role model for all women who want the best of both worlds. She invented devices for experimenting with electricity, but made no notable major discoveries. Her contributions to science15, and especially women in science go far beyond the role any invention would play. She was an inspiration for others to get educated. She was an inspiration to women to have their own goals and to work hard and achieve them.

Historically, we see Laura Bassi as the first female college professor to actually teach a class16. This well-deserved recognition doesn’t tell half the story of her accomplishments through teaching and inspiring her students, and the revolution she helped stir to get women recognized as equals in a professional field. Bassi is unique because she stood up for herself and gained the job and respect she was seeking. She is an important historical figure because unlike the women who came before her, Bassi would not tolerate the discriminatory system in which she was born.


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